Ageism: The Danger of Gross Generalization

Age is a funny thing. It’s as predictable and relentless as a Swiss timepiece. And it is a characteristic one can generally see, like gender and skin color. It‘s also fraught with an abundance of snarky humor and casual yet deep judgment.

“Have you heard the one about the two 70-year-olds and their car keys?”

In an era of off-limits micro-aggressions and widespread political correctness—a time when jokes about virtually any sub-group can unleash a fierce Twitter onslaught—pretty much anybody can get a deep belly laugh or a powerful ovation with a cutting remark about frail, forgetful, or clueless old people. Ageism is not only the last acceptable, even celebrated domain of demeaning humor—it is a bias that can be wielded like a merciless weapon in the workplace.

'Ageism is not only the last acceptable, even celebrated domain of demeaning humor—it is a bias that can be wielded like a merciless weapon in the workplace.'Click To Tweet

And make no mistake. Increasingly the young can be targeted as easily as the old. We are all accustomed to seeing hilarious videos of kids being kids, demonstrating their cluelessness and clumsiness for our amusement. If judgment stopped there, we might just enjoy it and move on.

Judgments based solely on age—perceptions of competence, energy, judgment and intelligence—set workers up for premature retirement, with deeply dire consequences for their financial and mental health. While many workers in their 50s begin to hear the “over the hill” whispers, in some industries such as advertising and fashion, the push toward the door seems to begin in one’s late 30s.

And then came tech as the industry of the future—for a few.

When we first launched Respectful Exits, we had lively discussions about the profile of the pre-retirees likely to be most concerned about the need and desire to work longer and most fearful of being dismissed as obsolete. Was the threshold 50+? Maybe 55+? Not until the 60s?

As we have grown, we have encountered few great surprises. Ageism is indeed widespread and virulent. The chatter about and reality of increased longevity has not translated into corrective action. And women bear a greater share of the negative impact of the retirement crisis. No dramatic news there.

What has surprised and even shocked us is the number of 30-something tech workers expressing their great anxiety of being “aged out” and expecting dismissal in their 40s. They experienced a near-worshipful attitude in their industry toward all things new and young.

This concern isn’t the insecurity of a few. ProPublica’s Cutting ‘Old Heads’ at IBM captures the “younger is better” mantra in full force as the tech giant allegedly chose to reinvent itself by  replacing as many as 20,000 older workers with younger employees to match the workforce profile of what were seen as more nimble competitors.

Will the replacement of older with younger occur once or as “rinse and repeat”?

Perhaps the famous utterance of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was not just a quip, but a long-term staffing rationale: “Young people are just smarter.” (Ironically, this bold assertion was widely quoted and embraced before this young entrepreneur encountered severe and continuing challenges to his platform and leadership.)

It’s time to call out out the sheer bias and unacceptable practice of treating a whole class of people as inferior because of one characteristic. Try completing the sentences “All women are… X” or all African Americans are… X” in a way that is not deeply offensive and wrong-headed.

Is 40 the new 60 or the average age of successful start-up founders?

Yes, many young people are creative, energetic, and driven. But so are tech’s “spring chickens” Richard Branson, Elon Musk,  and Jeff Bezos whose recent and latest start-ups are rocketing toward space. Are these “tech elders” rare exceptions to the tech notion of aging out?

Not according to a recent HBR article which challenges the reigning mythology of the 20-something Silicon Valley entrepreneur whose vision, perseverance, and inhuman hours have turned and will turn garage-based start-ups into legendary successes like Hewlett-Packard, Apple, Google and Facebook.

In fact a careful study of the average age of successful start-up founders across all US businesses—including tech—is not 22 but 42. Age, like gender and ethnicity, does not define talent. Casually discarding a cohort of workers due to age is a function of bias and blindness, not data-driven analysis.

Let’s take matters of age out of the workplace and leave them where they belong: at birthday celebrations.

'Casually discarding a cohort of workers due to age is a function of bias and blindness, not data-driven analysis.'Click To Tweet

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